Last week’s announcement that online betting company BK8 would be the new “principal and front of shirt” partner for English Premier League club Aston Villa’s home, away and third shirts was a loud slap in the face to the team’s fans, not to mention nearly all of us in the field of sports marketing.
The three-year agreement will expire in 2026, at the same time a league-wide ban on gambling companies as jersey-front sponsors takes effect. The 20 Premier League clubs voted to enact the prohibition in April, restricting any betting brand identification on kits to jersey sleeves.
The Aston Villa-BK8 link is not a bad sponsorship because it involves a gambling company. Casinos, sportsbooks, online betting and other gaming firms should have the right to responsibly market their brands and products, including being able to put their names on players’ chests, not just their arms.
This is a bad sponsorship because it flies in the face of the bedrock principle that makes partnerships between brands and beloved sports and entertainment properties work, specifically that a brand is tapping into the interest, loyalty and passion of fans by supporting their favorite team, event, player, artist, etc.
Aston Villa’s supporters have made it known ever since rumors of the deal emerged in January that they were against it. They sat down with club executives that month to express their objections directly. Immediately following Thursday’s announcement, they again took to social media to reinforce their stance, with the Aston Villa Supporters Trust posting a statement that said in part that it was “highly disappointed” with the decision and “”Though we acknowledge the commercial reality, we sadly feel the club has failed to listen to the legitimate concerns of fans about the role of gambling sponsorship in sports.”
Unless the multiple fan groups who have gone public do not actually represent the opinions of most Aston Villa followers, it is impossible to see how BK8 can earn a return on an investment that SportsPro reported is “significantly more” than the $7.67 million a year paid by the company it is replacing, online used-car retailer Cazoo.
It would be one thing if the company’s objectives were aimed solely at target markets that didn’t include the club’s supporters, but that is apparently not the case according to a BK8 quote in the official announcement, a statement that completely ignores the continuous fan backlash to the agreement: “Being able to give something back to the supporters for their dedication is a hugely significant part of the reason we want to be involved with a prestigious institution, which is what Aston Villa Football Club are,” said BK8’s EMEA managing director, Michael Gatt.
For Aston Villa’s part, its announcement focused on the deal’s ability to “grow both brands, particularly in Southeast Asia,” and highlighted the fact that BK8 would donate an undisclosed amount to a local charity in Birmingham for each sale of the club’s adult alternative third shirt, as well as turn over some of its advertising assets at Villa Park stadium “to charity organizations to display promotional messages throughout the season.”
If there is a winner in all this, it is Aston Villa. The club will receive its money from BK8, revenue the organization prioritized over listening to its fans. Because of the nature of sports fandom, however, the club will not lose those fans. The supporters will shout and stomp their feet in opposition, but if history is any lesson, they will resign themselves to their fate and return to the stands and their televisions next season.
The cold realization of where they fit in their favorite club’s hierarchy means fans lose. Without a reasonable expectation of return on investment, BK8 suffers a self-inflicted loss for pursuing an agreement the target audience didn’t want.
And with another example for the anti-sponsorship crowd to wave in our faces, those of us in the industry unfortunately take a loss as well.